It always feels like a fairly unique privilege diving into the works of a master filmmaker and no one would doubt the importance of the works of one Jean Renoir on the art of the moving image. Now available from the Criterion Collection, La Chienne isn’t necessarily one of his more famous films but it has flashes of his brilliance that we would bear witness to in his later works.
A heartbreaking love triangle that is as ruthless as it is amazingly compelling. Star Michel Simon as Maurice LeGrand is an unhappily married cashier and amateur painter who becomes so besotted with a local prostitute that he can’t see the obvious facts that are staring him in the face; she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him and bleeding him dry.
It’s the battle of the sexes, quite possibly put on the screen for the very first time and in La Chienne which was only Jean Renoir’s second sound film we see a storyteller who is understanding the nuance of sound and what that will bring to a whole new world of filmmaking.
Simple in its use of movement and framing, Renoir even at that this stage in 1931 had a distinct sense of purpose and style in how he tells his stories. Nothing is ever there for the sake of being there and it has a flow about it that feels genuine and natural. Renoir was a prolific auteur and when he finally made the jump to the talkies we get the honest depth of humanity that can be brought to the table. The story, adapted by Renoir himself from the novel by Georges de La Fouchardière is simply yet incredibly powerful as he explores the nature of love and passion and how easily it can be taken advantage of.
Renoir never shied away from telling the human stories and this is no different. We get the heights and lows of human nature as he viciously yet passionately skewers the high society of France and the very weakness that we as human beings all succumb to. He was never afraid to shine a light or turn a mirror on things that the higher classes in society have been in denial about, while keeping a sense of joie de vivre about it all. His films were about everything but they were also about nothing at the exact same time, that’s what made Renoir as revolutionary as a filmmaker. He made art and entertainment for the populace, but never shied away from trying something that was raw and humanistic as well.
Michel Simon was an absolute powerhouse as the noble sad sack Maurice LeGrand. He wanted to be loved, but could never quite get it right as he existed in a world of people who were all too willing to deem him as naive or just straight up silly. Janie Marèse and Georges Flamant are excellent as the other points in this love triangle and together they all create and environment where Renoir is truly being allowed to play and make statements about the human condition while wrapping them up in what is ultimately a borderline farce. It’s delightful, it’s sad, it’s real and it’s ridiculous all at the same time.
The Blu-Ray is struck from an excellent looking 4K digital transfer with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack which allows for some of the unique problems in recording live audio at the time as there are scenes where the dialogue tends to get dialed back in favor of the street noises, which gave it all a genuine sense of verity to the proceedings.
The special features include an introduction for the film that aired on French TV by Renoir himself. A new video interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner, a new restoration of On purge bébé, Renoir’s first foray into sound earlier in 1931 also starring Michel Simon and Finally there is Jean Renoir: Le Patron, a 95 minute TV show from 1967 featuring a conversation between Renoir and Simon directed by Jacques Rivette, along with a new English subtitle translation and an essay from film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.
Ultimately, La Chienne might not be the best entry into the worlds of Jean Renoir but for any advance level film buffs out there looking to expand their palette this is very easily right up your alley.